21st century leadership of global project teams

Leadership Architect, Get IT LLC

VP Programs, PMI Diversity Specific Interest Group


Global commerce and technology have rapidly bridged the gaps of distance and time. Which have resulted in the blurring of who the customers and suppliers really are. Automobiles, clothing, electronics, pharmaceuticals, finance, information technology and consumer goods sectors are all examples of having to rely on disparate teams and resources being brought together to design, develop, build, market and support products world wide.

As our economies have branched out beyond geographical borders, so have our interdependencies on developing and growing relationships on a global level. Traditionally the management of people, processes, and technology has been applied with a limited 18th century industrial model that was very hierarchical, tops down and localized. These techniques were appropriate at the time as industries and manufacturing were emerging in key business centers around the world that specialized in providing products based on regional materials and resources at hand. Comparisons and contrasts will be made on management philosophies focusing on where we have historically been, are currently at and how to prepare for the future in leading world class project teams with a 21st Century model. The topics to be discussed include distinguishing world class companies, the application of non-violent communications, embracing diversity, collaborative inquiry, widening communities of involvement and, making desired change in gaining mutual purpose through collaborative relationships based on influence.

Management vs. Leadership

Most of us have been accustomed to working in managed business environments where there is a formal and hierarchical organizational structure in place. From the tops-down CEO to the line manager and staff workers each of the roles are clearly laid out with job classifications, salary grades and clearly defined responsibilities and performance objectives. In order to align to achieving yearly corporate strategy and goals, each of us cascades our individual, departmental and divisional level objectives accordingly. On a task activity orientation level it was expected that the reporting manager would set the overall objectives of the team and to the individuals, taking a waterfall affect in a unilateral direction. Traditionally very little solicitation for feedback was expected or encouraged from the bottoms-up of how to make this happen. You were told what to do and expected to execute on those orders. Reinforcement to positive behavior was rewarded in promotions, recognition and compensation incentives. Those that didn't meet their objectives were put on performance improvement plans and then shown the door upon failure to improve.

21st Century Leadership

In contrast the 21st Century Leadership model is based on four key dimensions; 1) the relationship is based on influence and collaboration, 2) the leaders and followers are the people in this relationship, 3) there is intention for desired real change, and 4) the outcomes are for mutual purpose. The contrast to being a leader as opposed to being a manager is in the philosophy and approach on making transformational change by including those that will be directly affected throughout the process rather than just simply being told what to do. (Rost, 1993, pp. 102-104)

To accomplish the transformational change takes time and effort, it will not occur over night. The working environment and tone as set by an organization's senior executives is the most telling. There needs to be a delicate balance that is maintained between management on the transactional level to keep the day-to-day operations running, with the leadership influence on the strategic longer term vision. This can be done incrementally in continual improvement steps. First, by taking an assessment of the current “as is” environment to determine what the business priorities and political climate are. These can be seen as both the challenges and opportunities to start introducing the leadership methodologies and processes. Then identifying the gaps to get to the future desired leadership “to be” state and begin to lay a roadmap of actions, milestones and deliverables.

Creating a safe and fostering leadership environment may be a risky proposition and uncomfortable territory for many managers to put themselves into. To alleviate some of this anxiety the tools that can be used to start and build the foundations of leadership can be selected from the following areas of relationship development.

  • Practicing non-violent communications
    • Observing the concrete actions that are affecting our well being
    • Relating our feelings to what we are observing
    • Identifying the needs that are creating our feelings
    • Requesting the concrete actions we request to enrich our lives (Rosenberg, 2003, pp. 6-7)
  • Embracing diversity
    • Respecting perspectives based on values and beliefs
    • Recognizing language and communication styles
    • Becoming culturally sensitized, aware and rich
    • Recruiting of talent
  • Collaborative inquiry, action research with people rather than on people
    • Forming a collaborative inquiry group
    • Creating the conditions for group learning
    • Acting on the inquiry question
    • Making meaning by constructing group knowledge (Bray, et al, 2000, pp. 12-13)
  • Producing the engaged organization
    • Widening the circle of involvement
    • Connecting people to each other
    • Creating communities for action
    • Embracing democratic principles (Axelrod, 2002, pp. 32-35)

World Class Companies

Through annual Trust Index employee surveys and management Cultural Audits conducted by the organization Great Places to Work Institute, they have been able to identify the Top 100 companies on different continents throughout the globe that exhibit characteristics that make them cutting edge 21st Century Leadership companies that create a high-quality work environment. Not only have these companies made a commitment to investing in their workers, it is also reflected in their bottom-line profitability. In the US it has been demonstrated over the past eight years that those companies that have achieved this distinguished recognition, have also exceeded the stock performance of the Standard and Poor's 500 index by over 150%. http://www.greatplacetowork.com/best/index.php

The employee Trust Index rating criteria include:

  • Credibility: Internal communications – Irma, Denmark
  • Respect: Work life balance – Stopgap, UK
  • Fairness: Diversity Management - British Gas Business, UK
  • Pride: Involvement of Employees in corporate social responsibility – SMA Technologie, Germany
  • Camaraderie: Creating a fun place to work – Google, Ireland

In the EU the Top 10 Great Places to Work in 2006 are:

  • Bain & Company - Belgium, UK
  • Colgate Palmolive – Greece (Ranked #1)
  • Confinimmo – Belgium
  • ConSol Software – Germany
  • DePuy – Ireland
  • Microsoft – EU
  • Middelfart Sparekasse – Denmark
  • Minervaskolan i Umea - Sweden
  • O2 – Germany, Ireland
  • Vitae – Netherlands

In the US the Top 5 Great Places to Work in 2007 are:

  • Google – Media online internet, California
  • Genentech – Bio Tech / Pharmaceuticals, California
  • Wegmen's Food – Retail Food / Grocery, Texas
  • Container Store – Retail Specialty, Texas
  • Whole Food Markets – Retail Food / Grocery, Texas


Staying within the confines of our offices, cities and country is no longer good enough to be able to compete on a global basis. Giving out orders from the tops down and expecting employees to blindly follow them without question may work for the short term, but if you'd like to gain trust and commitment for achieving the long term vision. Transformational change must occur utilizing 21st Century Leadership methodology and process to engage and enable individuals and teams to become included as an integral part of the decision making process as early as possible and throughout the entire project life cycle.

The role of the project manager managing the triple constraints of schedules, budgets and scope isn't enough anymore. The evolution of the project manager is morphing into that of a project leader. We must equip the emerging project leader with the tools and executive support to succeed on a local level within their immediate sphere of influence and then broaden the community involvement to include the global stakeholders. Technology can help to get information for decision making to the far parts of the world almost instantaneously, yet that isn't enough. To build a network of social capital it will require developing long term personal and professional relationships.

The exploding phenomena of Web 2.0, is an example of the plethora of social networking applications and tools that are growing exponentially for virtual outreach and interaction. Business 2.0 is not far behind with those companies that will leverage these platforms for the delivery and generation of goods and services, broadening markets and ultimately higher profitability. 21st Century Global Leadership is not about the technology or processes, it is about the people as the catalyst with the vision and ideas that will initiate and cause the revolutionary change. It will take a redirection of time, energy and investment from the organizations and the people. Are you personally ready to make that commitment?


Axelrod, R. H., (2002). Terms of Engagement. San Francisco, CA: Berrett - Koeheler.

Bray, J., Lee, J., Smith, L., & Yorks, L. (2000). Collaborative Inquiry in Practice: Action, Reflection, and Meaning Making. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Rosenberg, M., (2003). Nonviolent Communication A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer.

Rost, J.C. (1993). Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Great Place to Work Institute. (2007). Best Places to Work List. Retrieved on 03/09/07 from http://www.greatplacetowork.com/best/index.php

© 2007, Ray Ju
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Proceedings – Budapest, Hungary



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